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Jennifer Egan at the Jerusalem Writers' Festival

Updated: May 10, 2023

I’ve just returned from the Jerusalem Writers’ Festival where I heard Jennifer Egan speak about her writing and books (in conversation with Israeli journalist Chen Lieberman). Jennifer is extremely well-spoken and intelligent (and basically: I love her). Throughout the interview, I kept nodding/fist pumping “yes!” I wanted to get this all down as soon as I could because there is a lot of great advice in here. Please excuse the half-written sentences. I asked my friend and fellow Modiin writer Vivian Cohen-Leisorek if she had anything to add after hearing Jennifer speak, so thank you Vivian for your additions!

In no particular order, here are a few takeaways from her talk:

  • Jennifer writes completely from her imagination; she does not want to write about herself or anyone she knows. She often writes from a male perspective. (Same!) The other day – at the PEN Israel inaugural conference – where she also spoke, she brought up the Toni Morrison quote that I love and even made a graphic about it once, back in the time I was trying to build up my FB author page audience.

  • Vivian adds another point that Jennifer made about characters: they need to have their inner life available to the reader, and their choices must feel necessary. Only then is it believable, only then can it generate empathy. Not what the author or reader would do, but what the character needs to do.

  • She does use place – whenever she starts writing, she starts with place and environment, often those that she does know. This makes writing historical fiction like Manhattan Beach somewhat of a challenge.

  • On conducting research: she reads a lot of fiction about the time and place. She listens to oral histories, reads letters, and if possible, interviews people who have first-hand experience with what she’s writing about. Nonfiction/history books are important as well, but those don’t give you insight into the interiority of the people at the time.

  • Vivian adds: One other thing that stayed with me - she starts with a sense of place, of the environment, and only then the characters begin to appear. Who is experiencing/sensing this place? Who is observing ? And who else is here? Often, she first senses the character through a line of dialog that comes up. After place and characters, the plot appears, but that happens only later, sometimes much later.

  • Her storytelling comes not from her conscious brain but her unconscious brain, and thus writing helps her uncover what she thinks. (I say this second part all the time).

  • Jennifer’s writing process:

    1. First drafts completely by hand (Love this! I did this with my novel that is currently in the drawer, should probably do it every time). The writing flows more easily and she can often get 5-7 pages at a time. (Additional benefits: no distractions from your device, you can write anywhere, outside, etc. Manhattan Beach was 28 yellow legal pads long.

    2. Then she transcribes everything she’s written. No editing allowed at this time, despite the temptation. Manhattan Beach took her 2 ½ months to type.

    3. Then she reads everything she’s written in a compact period and takes lots of notes. She might even go away for a few days to do this. She’s paying attention to the things that surprise her.

    4. Then she makes an outline, which includes what she has and what she still needs to fill in.

    5. Now the hard work of revision starts…

    6. She has a writing group and later in the process, beta readers.

    7. For Goon Squad and Candy House – putting the stories in order was the last thing she did. She wanted to order the books in the way that would be most entertaining for the reader. Always playing with the tension of surprise and recognition. (Yes, me too! Love that! I had six different potential orders for Jeremiah).

  • With Good Squad her original idea was to have two sections, going chronologically backward (section one, post 9/11; section two, pre), but then she realized it lost the effect. (Can I say one more time, me too? Originally wanted to do Jeremiah in backwards chronological order, but I realized it didn’t work for multiple reasons).

  • Vivian adds a related point: Writing in different points of view, styles, genres and particularly, different forms (e.g. the PowerPoint chapter) this has to feel inevitable for that particular story, that it can't be told in any other way.

That's all I can remember at the moment. Thanks, Jennifer, for coming to Jerusalem to share your writing wisdom with us!

Taken at the PEN conference on Sunday: Julie Zuckerman (holding my signed copy of The Candy House), Jennifer Egan & Jennifer Lang.


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